Commentary | Center for American Security

Op-Ed: Setting The Record Straight On Trump’s COVID Response

By Lt. General (Ret.) Keith Kellogg in Newsweek

The following essay is an excerpt from Keith Kellogg’s new book, War By Other Means: A General In The Trump White House, released October 19 by Regnery.

Inevitably, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden attacked President Trump’s address to the nation, saying, among other things: “Labeling COVID-19 a ‘foreign virus’ does not displace accountability for the misjudgments that have been taken thus far by the Trump administration.”

What misjudgments? We were advised daily by the nation’s top health experts, and we followed their guidance. But Biden went further, and spun off his criticisms into a political ad that even the Washington Post found egregiously deceptive and misleading, awarding it four (out of five) “Pinocchios” for presenting “a false narrative.” The Post added that “Campaigns must be willing to make their case without resorting to video manipulation.” Well, good luck with that.

The virus became a political issue in a political year, and the Democrats and the mainstream media (for the most part) could not overcome their prejudices against Donald J. Trump and could not judge our efforts fairly and objectively. I will be frank: I thought this behavior was simply disgraceful. It was political opportunism of the worst kind that misinformed Americans and increased fear.

That misinformation got worse as the press praised New York governor Andrew Cuomo as the anti-Trump: heroic, liberal, pro-science, activist governor against the virus. This adulation came even as his state became the worst hit in the country, after he made some very bad decisions about sending COVID-19 patients back to nursing homes and deliberately undercounted deaths. The president, to his credit, ignored all the politics and media partisanship and did everything possible to rush medical help to New York.

Our response had to be fast, and it was. On 13 March 2020, President Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency. The administration’s effort shifted into overdrive. The vice president traveled constantly. He worked with companies like 3M to dramatically increase production of N-95 medical masks. He worked with diagnostic lab companies to ramp up testing. With Admiral Brett Giroir, MD, assistant secretary for health at Health and Human Services, becoming our testing point man, the United States become the world’s leader on testing and testing resources.

In essence, we went to the private sector and encouraged companies to go onto a wartime footing so that we could fulfill the president’s directive to do everything possible to protect the American people from harm. Any slowness we had in getting started was the result of a lack of information—for which we should blame China, not the Trump administration. Once we started getting more data, we acted on it as fast as anyone could. The president always demanded that we press for more information, that we remove obstructions to progress and that we light fires under slow-moving bureaucracies. Any narrative that the administration did not act rapidly against the COVID-19 pandemic is absurd. The facts prove otherwise.

We even instituted the equivalent of a domestic Berlin Airlift to acquire additional medical equipment as quickly as possible. Eighty percent of medical personal protective equipment is made overseas. Rather than wait on shipping freighters, with transit times of a month or more, we partnered with UPS and FedEx to use their air assets to bring this equipment stateside. It was called Project Airbridge and it slashed the delivery time of critical equipment to two days from 28-plus by traditional sealift. Over the course of 249 flights, we brought in millions of protective masks, gloves, overgarments and face shields. The first flight landed o March 29, 2020, bringing 80 tons of supplies to New York and New Jersey.

That same month we sent U.S. Navy hospital ships to assist New York and California. The West Coast–based USNS Mercy arrived in Los Angeles harbor and began seeing patients on March 29 while the USNS Comfort arrived in New York harbor on March 30, providing an additional 1,000 hospital beds.

On March 16, the Trump administration had issued a set of medical recommendations for a 15-day campaign to slow the spread of the virus. The recommendations were commonsensical and meant to give our hospitals time to gear up for the expected rise in cases. Unfortunately, state and local authorities went far beyond the guidelines, locking down much of the country.

Such lockdowns were not medical best practice. They were motivated by a combination of fear, panic, bureaucratic overreaction, single-issue thinking and the apparent desire of some mayors and governors to take advantage of the situation to wield virtually unlimited power. The full consequences are yet to be fully measured or appreciated, but they could easily rival or even surpass the deaths and damage caused by the coronavirus itself.

Businesses started or funded by people’s life savings were closed, perhaps forever. Unemployment soared. Children were deprived of school, of a social life. Isolation imposed all sorts of sufferings. Drug abuse and suicides surged. I was haunted by a comment from Dr. Elinor McCance-Katz, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for mental health and substance abuse. She urged us to keep a sense of perspective and to remember that lives lost to suicide or drug overdose were as important as lives lost to the coronavirus. She warned of the damage done to children through lockdowns and school closings, and how some children in bad home situations were now at dramatically greater risk for child abuse. Her comment that “every home is not a safe home” was haunting. CDC director Bob Redfield echoed her comments. “The CDC has never recommended school closings. It is time for schools to open.” A year later, many still weren’t.

When the surge of cases hit New York, we offered Governor Cuomo every possible assistance, and much of the assistance we offered—from ventilators to the USNS Comfort to the U.S. Army field hospital conversion of New York City’s Javits Center—went largely unused. We actually ended up with a surplus of ventilators, especially after doctors decided that they should be used more infrequently. Still, New York became our Milan. The crisis would crest, but the fear would linger. The president understood this, which was one reason why he tried to project optimism (which came to him naturally anyway). He also understood that the only way to get fully and expeditiously out of the crisis was with a vaccine—and the reassurance we would get from it.

Operation Warp Speed had three core strategies to succeed. The first was to build a broad portfolio of vaccine candidates, so that we could progress even if one or two failed. The second was to offer unprecedented government support, both money and manpower, to help with clinical trials. Third, the government would pay for the manufacture of the vaccines even before they were approved for use. Vaccines would still have to go through rigorous clinical development and independent regulatory review and approval, but this way we would cut nine months to a year from the timeline of vaccine development and distribution. It would save hundreds of thousands of lives.

The scientific process is exacting, as it should be, and though we pushed for speed, we did not cut corners on safety. In fact, when we needed to slow things down briefly to ensure we had the right demographics in the clinical trials, we did that—and no one pushed back.

What we all thought was outrageous was Kamala Harris’ politicization of the vaccine. The vice presidential candidate stated in October that “if the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it—absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us we should take it, I’m not taking it.” She became the public face of the anti-vaccine movement.

Her statement only illustrated the illogical, irrational, perverse obsession the Democrats had with hating Donald Trump, because the president could not, on his own authority, authorize a vaccine for use—and he had no incentive to do so. His incentive was to make the system work better and faster than it had ever worked before. He drove the vaccine development as much as any chief executive could, but we removed no safety guards. The actual vaccine was developed by doctors and scientists, not by Trump; Kamala Harris’s statement was nothing more than shameless political theater meant to push a counterfactual narrative of hate against the president. So much for confidence-building, so much for caring about the American people, so much for “following the science.”

We led the world in developing a vaccine and were leading the world in vaccinations. The vaccines would effectively end the pandemic. Warp Speed will go down in history as an unqualified success. President Trump drove it with his tenacity and Vice President Pence helped coordinate the entire effort. Someone will someday write the full and fair history of Operation Warp Speed, and I am convinced that history will be kind.

Keith Kellogg is a retired Army Lieutenant General who was an assistant to the president and national security advisor to Vice President Mike Pence. He is currently Co-Chairman of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.

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